MONO JAPAN Artist in Residence program is a new venture of MONO JAPAN to promote cultural collaborations between Japanese craftsmanship and Dutch creative designers. Our aim is to become a platform for the 'special chemistry' between Dutch creators and Japanese traditional craftsmen, which will contribute to the visibility of Dutch design in the Japanese cultural sector and vice versa. Corresponding to our idea, three Japanese craft makers producing products with traditional techniques have committed themselves to work with Mono Japan in this program: Aizu Shikki, who makes lacquerware in Fukushima; Sekishu Washi, who makes handmade washi paper in Shimane; and Yoshida Shingi Shozoku, who makes Shinto priest costumes in Kyoto. The program has been made possible with generous contributions of Stimuleringsfonds, Embassy of the Netherlands in Tokyo and Gemeente Amsterdam.
We made an open call to the creatives based in the Netherlands from October 2018 for 2 months and received many applications. Later two evaluations had been organized, and eventually, three designers were selected for each location: Pao Hui Kao (Aizu Shikki), Jonas Althaus (Sekishu Washi) and Maryam Kordbacheh (Yoshida Shingi Shozoku). After several long-distance discussions among the designers and craftsmen, designers flew to Japan and started two months of residency at the beginning of June 2019. During the residency period, each designer had a thorough introduction including some excursions organized by each craftsman. Getting first-hand experience with the Japanese craftsmanship, designers had developed new products in the workspace provided by the craftsmen.
Through these intense collaborations, a great number of innovative results emerged. From now onwards, each craftsman, designer and MONO JAPAN will cooperate with one another and finalize the commercialization process of the products. By refining the details of the design and quality, each party will contribute further to the commercialization of the product. As a result, the final products are planned to be commercially available at MONO JAPAN 2020.
Shikki (lacquerware) are made by applying many coats of resin, harvested from trees such as poison oaks or black trees before the lacquered items are decorated using various techniques. The making of Shikki contains more than thirty processes, which can be roughly divided into three phases; woodwork; lacquering; and decoration. Pao has visited those specialized craftsmen in the region. In addition to visiting various craftsmen, she also had opportunities to visit the urushi tree farm as well as joining a traditional Japanese food gathering to experience 100-year-old tableware lacquered with urushi.
Initially, Pao’s proposal for this residency was to combine Japanese paper and Urushi lacquer, applying her creative research on paper developed over the past years. However, during the residency, Pao and craftsmen found out that 2 months of residency was too short for Pao to work with urushi herself, as the process and techniques are complicated and practically time-consuming. Therefore, Pao changed the direction of her plan and decided to develop design, playing with ‘perfection and imperfection’ in the traditional urushi technique itself.
One of the outcomes is a tableware series. She asked wood craftsman to make 20 pieces of curved plates, and cut them into smaller pieces. Later she visited urushi decoration craftsmen and asked to decorate each small piece in different decoration techniques. Through the decoration process, the curves of pieces were changed slightly. As each decoration technique has totally different procedure, each piece got a different curve after the decoration. Pao took this uncontrollable reaction of the wood and urushi not as an error but as an interesting quality. She asked another craft master to glue the pieces back to the form of plates, using traditional ‘Kintsugi’ technique. By doing so, the plates get unsmooth surface which makes each plate unique and characteristic. During the process there has been interesting dialogue between the craftsmen who aim for perfection and Pao who embraces the error.
The other result is a series of mirror which incorporates the specific decorative urushi drawing technique called ‘Makie’. Pao was amazed at how delicately and precisely the Makie craftsman manages to draw a line with urushi. And she came up with an attempt to challenge craftsman. With a wood craftsman, she made a basic square structure for the mirror with a machine, and asked Makie craftsman to draw the thinnest line on the edge of the structure. This attempt resulted in showing slight human trace and error in contrast with the machine cut line of the square structure.
Yoshida Shingi Shozoku is a traditional tailor producing Shinto priest costume in Kyoto. ‘Shingi Shozoku’ is a Shinto priest costume, Japanese traditional costume originated from the late Heian period (794 - 1185). Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan until the end of the Edo era (1603 - 1868). The city was host to a lot of official ceremonies, events, and the Shinto rituals. The tailoring business for the ritual costumes, therefore, thrived in Kyoto. The ritual costumes are used in the imperial court, in various kinds of ceremonies and for Shinto priests. The special colors, patterns and construction of the garments have been inherited throughout more than a thousand years without any change.
Maryam made in-depth research on the characteristic design details and craft techniques of Shinto priest costume and incorporated the details into a series of modern garments. She had opportunities to look into the archive of imperial garments, visit several shrines to see various Shinto ceremonies and visit traditional textile maker and weaver in the region.
The first thing which inspired Maryam throughout the research was the unique pattern making system.
Maryam has normally made her pattern three-dimensionally like sculpting on her torso. On the other hand, the pattern of Shinto priest costume is very two dimensional like an origami construction. She reinterpreted the two-dimensional pattern and used it effectively in the collection of the items. In addition, she made research of Japanese traditional colors and the specific traditional techniques of the costume making such as rope making and draping. Those elements are also effectively incorporated into her design.
The collection consists of exclusive series and casual series. The exclusive series consists of dresses, jackets and trousers, which focus on making the most of the craftsmanship and the quality of the material. T-shirts and accessories are designed for the casual series which is more accessible for a wider audience. Yoshida Shingi Shozoku and Maryam will improve the design further and finalize the commercialization of the products by next summer 2020.
Sekishu Washi, the special washi paper of western Shimane Prefecture has a long history of over a thousand years. The ingredients of Sekishu washi are kozo, mitsumata, and gampi shrubs. Kozo and mitsumata are cultivated in the region and gampi grows wild. They start their paper making from the step of growing and harvesting the ingredients themselves. The paper made from Sekishu kozo is well known as the strongest paper produced in Japan.
What if we understood technological progress and traditional craftsmanship not as being opposed to each other, but as two realms of knowledge truly enriching if put in a dialogue? How would e.g. a Japanese version of a “smart home” evolve if it were developed bearing the material sensibility and expertise of traditional crafts in mind? As a designer specialized in human interaction and digital technology, Jonas raised the research questions for the residency above and started his journey to create ‘Sensory washi’.
Jonas had an intensive introduction of paper making starting from treating materials to scooping paper, which eventually allowed him to make washi by himself. After the introduction, he started making experiments, combining washi ingredients with conductive fibers. Through trial and error, Jonas and craftsmen found a method to integrate the washi ingredients and the conductive fiber in a way that gets close to the original principal of washi paper making: mixing the paper ingredients and cut fiber together and scoop it. After finding this basic method, Jonas has searched further for the aesthetic variety of the conductive paper by using traditional surface treatment techniques.
As a next step of the project, Jonas designed a glowing ‘shoji’ (Japanese traditional room divider) which introduces the function of the conductive paper he developed. A local wood workshop specialized in shoji carpentry was involved to make the prototype. The system for touch sensitive illumination was attached on the wood structure and the conductive papers were assembled in triangular modules. Thus the prototype of the glowing shoji was successfully made: reacting on touch, the washi part of the prototype glows and dims down. Jonas and craftsmen will focus further on the commercialization of the conductive paper, considering to apply for a patent.